Baltimore schools paying millions in additional income

Baltimore City schools paid more than $600 million in salary to more than 13,000 employees last year.

As the Baltimore school system was running up a $72 million deficit last year — a gap that officials say will force layoffs for the first time in more than a decade — it paid out $46 million in bonuses, overtime pay and accrued leave, pushing the earnings of many employees well into six figures.

The payouts, which have drawn the ire of school officials and lawmakers alike, dwarf the $36.5 million state funding cut that district officials and state lawmakers have fought in recent weeks to restore to avoid what they say would be debilitating cuts to schools and programs.

In all, the district has been dealing with a funding gap of more than $108 million.

District officials said the nonsalary compensation — the largest sum was $217,000 to former interim CEO Tisha Edwards — was driven mainly by leave policies that are far more liberal than those offered by most public entities and date back to a time when the district offered generous benefits to compensate for low pay.

Now Baltimore school officials and educators are among the highest paid in the state. But they are also earning tens of thousands of dollars on top of their salaries, particularly when they leave the system, according to a review of compensation records obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The district paid more than $600 million in salary to more than 13,000 employees last year. The bulk of the $42 million in "additional earnings" — including bonuses, unused sick time and vacation leave, stipends, pay adjustments and back pay — went to administrators and new retirees.

The district also paid $4 million in overtime, mainly to school police and operations staff such as custodians. Fifteen police officers took home more than $20,000 in overtime apiece.

School board President Shanaysha Sauls called the payouts "staggering," and said they were "not something we should feel comfortable with."

She said the district's benefits packages have not been balanced against its now competitive salaries.

"We have moved aggressively and in good faith to show that we want to do right by our people in terms of compensation," Sauls said. "But we need to have an honest conversation about being respectful to people, while not being disrespectful to the organization."

The board has ordered up new policies for leave pay and has already set an example: The contract of new schools CEO Gregory Thornton caps the amount of vacation leave he can cash out when he departs. His predecessors did not have caps.

Sauls said she was less concerned about overtime.

The $217,000 in additional earnings paid to Edwards brought her pay for the year to $339,000. Sauls said the additional earnings was mainly compensation for unused leave.

Edwards signed a $225,000 contract to run the district for a year after CEO Andres Alonso resigned in 2013. After a decade in the district — she entered as a principal in 2003 — she was able to cash out her leave at her CEO rate.

Edwards did not respond to a request for comment.

Other members of the Cabinet — each of whom was hired after 2007 and made more than $150,000 in base salary — left with additional payouts that ranged from $13,446 to $76,104.

Officials in the school administration declined to answer questions about the additional income.

The payouts have frustrated lawmakers who have long called for more accountability in city schools spending.

"I think taxpayers should be outraged that retirees and administrators are walking away with thousands in accrued benefits and bonuses," Del. Kathy Szeliga said.

The Baltimore County Republican, whose children attended a city school, voted for the city to get $1 billion to rebuild its school infrastructure.

But she worries about the district's stewardship of taxpayer money. The district has come under fire for its spending practices in recent years, some of which was captured in audits by the state and federal governments.

"The bottom line for taxpayers and parents, is they want money in the classroom … and this is a city that's struggling for every tax dollar they can get."

In 2012, state auditors called the district's leave payouts "excessively generous," and said they were nearly four times higher than those of other large districts in Maryland. They also found that employees were paid for hundreds more vacation days than they were entitled to.

The city's leave policies drew scrutiny from lawmakers and school board members in 2013 after The Baltimore Sun reported that the district paid $65 million in accrued vacation and sick leave in the first five years of Alonso's tenure.

The Sun found that compared to other districts, the city had much higher caps on the amount of unused vacation time employees could cash out when they left the district.

For example, 12-month employees in the Baltimore Teachers Union can cash out at least 72 days. Principals can cash out up to 250 sick days when they leave. Unaffiliated employees, such as managers in the central office, can cash out up to 192 days — more than half a year's pay.

Baltimore County caps pay for unused leave time at 40 or 45 days, depending on the bargaining unit. Howard County caps it at 40 days. Neither district allows retirees to cash out unused sick leave. Anne Arundel County pays out sick leave annually, but only to employees with at least 15 years of service.

Baltimore school officials defended the comparatively high caps in 2012, saying that it was not an "unreasonable expense" for "rewarding positive behavior" of employees who committed years to the district and rarely took days off.

They said the costs were driven up by the sharp uptick in the number of principals who resigned or retired under Alonso's aggressive reforms.

When Alonso resigned in 2013, he cashed out $150,000 in leave.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, who has pushed to restore state cuts to the city schools budget, said the district's leave policies should be on the new superintendent's radar.

"In the midst of the current budget situation we have, it's time to rein in those policies," said the Baltimore Democrat, a former city schools instructor and administrator. "These are the kinds of policies and issues I hope the CEO looks at as he tries to work his way out of a tight spot."

Thornton said leave policies are among the main reasons he wants to reopen negotiations with school unions.

He said the amount of leave being paid out must be reduced for long-term sustainability. "I've always said I wasn't going out looking for new dollars, and that we're looking at being disciplined with the resources we have," he said. "Salaries haven't been watched closely in the past, and leave policies have had long-term repercussions."

But union leaders defended the benefit, and other additional pay for educators.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's administrators union, said he would be open to renegotiating leave pay for new hires, but said current principals have earned their eventual payouts. "Our administrators have dedicated years of their lives, and to leave with no compensation would be totally unacceptable," he said.

Aside from retirees who received leave payouts, the teachers union said its additional income could reflect stipends or other pay adjustments negotiated under their new contract. Records show that many teachers received smaller payouts between $1,000 to $5,000.

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said any additional income teachers receive "comes from the extra work they do to be the best teachers they can be for Baltimore's young people."

English said the union was willing to work with Thornton to resolve the budget challenges.

"In order to do this we'll need to assess how every dollar of the budget is allocated and determine if we can make whatever cost saving measures without jeopardizing the education of the city's youth," she said in a statement.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this story.

Top five highest additional earnings payments in 2014

Name Title Salary earnings Additional earnings

Tisha Edwards Interim chief executive officer $121,830 $217,156

Janet Johnson Board executive $116,516$148,509

Samuel Winfield School police officer $52,228$141,379

Marcia Martin Assistant principal $82,375 $112,985

Courtney Whitehead Assistant principal $15,829$98,637

Salary earnings may represent compensation for part of the year. Johnson had no comment; the others listed did not respond to requests for comment.

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